Baseball has changed a lot over the last 36 years.
One of the things that has changed the most since 1980 is the usage of bullpens. Relief pitchers are throwing harder than ever before, with nastier stuff than ever before. And relievers have become specialized in ways it never was back then.
Guys come in for one inning, throw 95 mph with a nasty slider, and are done. Some guys are only used against lefties. Some are only used against righties. Rarely does a reliever pitch more than one inning, unless he’s a long man and there’s a blowout.
Before this postseason, closers were strictly 9th inning entities. They existed only to secure the last three outs and earn the almighty “save,” the statistic that defines relief pitchers and, more importantly, earns them big bucks at the negotiating table.
And there are rules regarding closers. As Buck Showalter demonstrated during the AL wild card game, one of those rules is that you don’t use them on the road in a tie game because you need to “save them” in case you get the lead. Because, after all, no other pitcher on the roster can record those three outs. Only the closer.
Unless your team never gets that lead. Then, as happened with Showalter, your season ends with your best pitcher twiddling his thumbs behind the outfield fence.
But my how things have changed this postseason.
Perhaps because of Showalter’s gaffe, managers have done a complete 180 with their closers in the playoffs. The Los Angeles Dodgers, Cleveland Indians and Chicago Cubs have used their best relief arms in roles far differently than how they were used in the regular season.
Kenley Jansen came in during Game 5 of the NLDS against the Washington Nationals in the 7th inning. He needed nine outs in order to secure the save, protecting a skinny one-run lead. And secure it he did, after throwing a career-high 51 pitches, all of them full of intensity.
The Indians have used their best reliever, Andrew Miller, at any and all times since he was acquired from the Yankees back in July. Molder was not pigeon-holed into the 9th inning. Instead, manager Terry Francona has used him whenever a high leverage situation presented itself, whether it be in the 6th, 7th or 8th innings.
In nine playoff appearances this year, Miller has gone at least two innings in six of them, throwing more 40 or more pitches twice and 30 or more four times. His most was a 46-pitch outing in Game 1 of the World Series.
And last night, in a must-win Game 5 for the Chicago Cubs, manager Joe Maddon brought in closer Aroldis Chapman in the 7th inning, needing eight outs from their super closer.
They got it.
That eight-out save was the longest of his career, and his 42 pitches thrown were two short of his career high. It was only the second time in his postseason career he had entered a game earlier than the 9th. You might remember how the first instance turned out.
That was Game 2 of the 2010 NLDS in which the Phillies swept the Reds 3-0. Oh, Jay Bruce. Thank you.
The usage of closers has been the story of the 2016 MLB playoffs. But really all this is is a return to the way things used to be. This is the way managers used to manage, and this is the way closers used to be used during the regular season.
In 1980, there were 113 saves of two innings or more. This year, there were only 29 such saves, and the vast majority of them (20 of 29) were the result of pitchers pitching mop-up duty in victories of five runs or greater (stats via Baseball Reference).
In fact, over the last seven years, from 2010-2016, there were just 170 saves of two innings or more, just 57 more than in 1980 alone.
In 1980, there were 10 players with at least 10 saves of two innings or more.
In 1984, Quisenberry had 27 saves of at least two innings, and had 26 in 1983. Bruce Sutter had 22 in 1984. This was normal operating procedure for Rollie Fingers, Rich Gossage and Jeff Reardon as well.
And now, here is the leaderboard of pitchers with two inning saves since 2010.
You get the point. This just isn’t done anymore.
Which is why what we’ve seen so far this postseason is so jarring. It’s a hop into the way-back machine, a glimpse of what closers used to do.
So, is this going to be more of the norm moving forward? Or are we just seeing an issue of desperate times calling for desperate measures?
It seems as though the previous era could never return. Pitchers throw too hard and are conditioned to pitch no more than one inning during the grind of a regular season. With the velocity pitchers bring in today’s game, they would destroy their arms if they tried to pitch multiple innings regularly.
But it’s a reminder of a time when the so-called “fireman” ruled the ‘pen. And perhaps the success we’ve seen from these closers in the playoffs will allow managers to bend and break the rules they’ve been married to for the last couple decades.